Putting John in prison

June 11, 2103

Dear brothers and sisters,

I am taking the good news today from Luke 3:19-20.

Now Herod the tetrarch, who had been censured by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil deeds Herod had committed, added still another to these by [also] putting John in prison.

At first it seems a little odd that Luke has placed John’s imprisonment before the report of his baptism of Jesus. The New American Bible notes explain, “Luke uses this literary device to serve his understanding of the periods of salvation history. WIth John the Baptist, the time of promise, the period of Israel, comes to an end; with the baptism of Jesus and the descent of the Spirit upon him, the time of fulfillment, the period of Jesus, begins.” The New Jerome Biblical Commentary adds that John’s preaching of the good news led to his imprisonment and subsequent death just as later Jesus’ preaching was met with the same reaction. Luke was preparing the small faith communities of his time that preparing the way of the Lord could provoke similarly violent responses.

As was the habit of the Jewish prophets over the centuries, John accused and annoyed practically everyone. He didn’t spare anyone from tax collector to soldier to Herod. He preached the moral life, rightness before God and man. In the case of Herod, John accused him of violating Jewish law by having married (after seducing) the wife of his half-brother. Herodias was also his niece as she was the daughter of his uncle. Unlike the tax collector and soldier who repented and were baptized, Herod would have none of it. He didn’t like being challenged and chastised. So, Herod silenced John by having him incarcerated in a ghastly prison on the shore of the Dead Sea and then beheaded.

That’s what the powerful do with those who confront and condemn them for matters immoral or illegal. Troublemakers question authorities about what is right and just. The powerful don’t like it and usually move to silence those who disturb their consciences. We’re watching something like that play out now in the news with the trial of Private Bradley Manning who leaked hundreds of thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks and the confession of Edward Snowden, the former CIA analyst, who leaked documents to newspapers about the government’s secret surveillance of our telephone records and Internet usage. Manning is being tried before a military judge who will render judgment and sentence, rendered without the benefit of a jury of his peers. The U.S. will reportedly try to extradite Snowden for trial perhaps on charges of espionage and treason similar to the charges against Manning. Conviction of either of these men likely will result in many years of imprisonment.

What might John have had to say about these events? John, who was preparing the way of the Lord and proclaiming repentance for the forgiveness of sins, exhorted listeners to produce good fruit and to act with social justice. John, who preached right conduct, condemned Herod and Herodias for their immoral and illegal union. Who is the sinner in these cases? Who is standing up for what is right and just? These are complex issues, of course, and they are making for strange bedfellows in Washington.

The examples of people who asked John what to do and the case of Herod and Herodias were pretty straightforward, black and white. Most of the time I am not presented with such clear-cut issues to judge. They are somewhere in-between as with the cases of Manning and Snowden. There is both right and wrong on each side. However, what I am sure of and what Luke is emphasizing for me in this reading is that it is unjust for the powerful to silence those who condemn them. Mannning and Snowden have stated that they were acting on their consciences to unveil the secret and suspect activities of government, which holds almost all the cards. What is left for John and others like him who protest by shining light on behavior that they believe is immoral and perhaps illegal? Herod considered John’s preaching to be treasonous. Likewise, our government has lodged the same complaint against Manning and Snowden. It can be said that our government’s objective to protect us stems from a good intention but at what cost? Secrecy is where evil flourishes.

Now, I’m not in a position that I have to make a judgment about Manning or Snowden. However, I am confronted with situations from time to time that require me to make a moral judgment and to act accordingly. Does God expect me to remain quiet or am I to speak out like John and risk the consequences? I instinctively shrink from confrontation and refrain from provoking conflict even when I know it’s not right. I think Luke has made clear for me what God expects. He wants me to prepare the way for the Lord. I can’t do that by being silent because I’m afraid of the consequences. Had John been afraid and failed to speak out, he would have failed his mission. If I am afraid and fail to speak up for what is right and just, I have failed my mission as well — preparing the way for the Lord, the kingdom of God.



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